The Past, Present and Future of Place-Based Learning

By Gregory Smith
Editor’s Note: We believe Place-Based Education is currently missing from conversations about powerful, personalized learning. Getting Smart’s Place-Based Education campaign set out to change this by inviting teachers, leaders and experts in place-based education to tell their stories, share their examples and offer their insights.
While we focus on innovations in teaching and learning, it’s important for us to situate our current work in PBE within the historical context. We’re honored that Lewis & Clark College’s Gregory Smith accepted our invitation to provide this overview of PBE’s roots to help us, and our readers, connect the future of place-based education to its rich past.

Place- (and community-) based education is nothing new. This approach, with its focus on the incorporation of local knowledge, skills and issues into the curriculum, involves an effort to restore learning experiences that were once the basis of children’s acculturation and socialization prior to the invention of formal schools. We tend to forget that schools as a society-wide institution are less than two centuries old.

Learning Before Formal Education

Prior to their invention, the great majority of children learned within the context of their families, neighborhoods and communities as they watched, listened to and imitated adults, explored the natural and human-made world, and interacted with one another.
Initiation rites perhaps come as close to school as anything encountered in pre-modern societies with their isolation of age-mates from their community, their focus on the transmission of specific forms of knowledge and their use of fear and anxiety as primary motivators of attention and participation. Most of the time, however, the learning of children and youth was much more informal as they went about their lives playing, doing chores, listening to stories around campfires or fireplaces in the evening, and gradually being drawn into the responsibilities and activities of adults.
Although informal, this process could be quite systematic. Among the Tlingit peoples who lived on Sitka Island in southeast Alaska as late as the 1970s, children would be encouraged to visit the homes or workshops of different adults in their village in order to discover their own gifts and inclinations. They might watch a fisherman making or repairing nets, spend time observing the bentwood box maker plying his craft, accompany the healer on plant gathering expeditions or listen especially close to the way the storyteller crafted his or her words for the community’s enjoyment and edification.
If children returned over time to one or another of these adults, they would be asked to help with simple chores. If they continued to show up, they would be given more formal instruction, so that eventually they could gain the skills and knowledge that would allow them to fulfill this role once they became adults.
In this way, communities could ensure their own sustainability as generations passed on their expertise to young people drawn to continue this work within the context of cultural understandings and practices shared by all. Children growing up in pre-19th century America or Europe experienced much the same thing, learning the skills and crafts required of adulthood from their parents, other family members or people they apprenticed with when they were old enough to leave their own homes.

Pushback from Progressive Educators

Much of this was lost as schools came to dominate the lives of young people with the passage of compulsory school attendance laws. John Dewey, a progressive educator and philosopher whose work gained significant attention during the first half of the 20th century, observed that the great problem with schools as they had developed by the 1890s was that what happened in classrooms was generally divorced from children’s lives outside of school. The result was that teachers could no longer rely on children’s curiosity or desire to gain the skills of respected adults in their family, once a primary motivation for learning.
At the University of Chicago Lab School, Dewey attempted to alter this situation by transforming the classroom into a small community in which learning was linked to the fulfillment of tasks common to the human experience. Students would learn mathematics as they built a clubhouse, chemistry as they cooked a meal, art and design as they spun, dyed and wove wool, and democratic forms of governance as they made decisions together. Dewey’s ideas are often associated with hands-on learning, something that is indeed central to his educational vision.
But more than this, he sought to help children see themselves as individuals responsible to their community, individuals who possessed the ability to experiment with different ideas and possibilities and engage with others in the creation of better lives for one another.
For several decades, Dewey’s work resonated with other educators and a proportion of the population, and his ideas remain an inspiration for democratically inclined teachers today. In many respects, he was the first American place- and community-based educator.
In the early decades of the 20th century, Dewey’s colleague at Columbia University’s Teachers College, William Heard Kilpatrick, popularized what came to be known as the project method. Kilpatrick believed that students’ work in schools should fulfill identifiable individual or community purposes and that students themselves should have a role in deciding projects they wished to pursue. This approach was especially well-received in rural schools.
Although interest in the project method waned, it never completely disappeared from American schools. In the past decade, it has enjoyed a revival with increasing attention devoted to its possibilities by institutions like the Buck Institute for Education and Edutopia. A number of the schools recently awarded XQ $10 million grants focus students’ attention on projects tied to local problem solving. Similar work characterizes learning in schools that have adopted place- and community-based educational approaches. (Editor’s Note: For more on project-based learning, see Getting Smart’s “It’s A Project-Based World” blog series and publications.)

Nature and Environmental Education

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, educators concerned about introducing natural history and conservation into the public schools also anticipated many of the practices associated with place-based education. Wilbur Jackson at the University of Chicago and Liberty Hyde Bailey and Anna Comstock at Cornell wrote extensively about the value of incorporating outdoor nature study into students’ school experiences, viewing it as a means to enhance students’ awareness of the world, cultivate their curiosity and deepen their appreciation of nature and other life forms.
During this period as well, public and governmental concern about the impact of industrial development, agricultural practices and resource extraction led to the enactment of laws to protect the integrity of natural systems. Their effective enforcement required informing the public about their rationale and requirements with the result that schools were asked to also devote some attention to conservation education.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, nature studies and conservation education coalesced under the umbrella term of environmental education. A central player during this period was William Stapp at the Department of Natural Resource Conservation and Planning at the University of Michigan.
Stapp offered the initial definition of environmental education, and then for several decades played a major role in disseminating this vision globally. Stapp explains, “Environmental education is aimed at producing a citizenry that is knowledgeable concerning the biophysical environment and its associated problems, aware of how to help solve these problems and motivated to work toward their solution.”
Three United Nations-sponsored conferences in the 1970s provided opportunities for scholars, educators and activists to articulate ways in which this set of aims could be accomplished. The 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment argued that education would be essential in efforts to deal with what was then recognized to be a growing environmental crisis. A subsequent conference in 1975 in Belgrade reinforced Stapp’s belief that environmental education needed to incorporate knowledge, skills, attitudes, and social and political participation if it were to have the impact desired by policy makers.
Finally, in 1977, representatives from 66 countries gathered in Tbilisi in the USSR Republic of Georgia to lay out the principles that should govern these efforts. These principles included the assertions that environmental education should be lifelong; interdisciplinary; utilize diverse learning environments; promote problem-solving at local, national and international levels; and emphasize critical thinking and problem-solving skills, among others.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, writers concerned about cultural as well as natural resource issues added their voices to the literature of environmental education. Long motivated by the implications of the Club of Rome’s 1972 volume The Limits to Growth, C.A. Bowers in his Elements of a Post-Liberal Theory of Education (1987), drew upon the work of bioregionalists like Kirkpatrick Sale to call for an effort to localize education and orient students to the needs and possibilities of their own regions, focusing especially on the way language could either support or constrain the development of the new ways of thinking and acting needed to address the environmental crisis.
In his 1992 volume, Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World, political scientist and environmental activist, David Orr, similarly emphasized the importance of place as the starting point from which it might be possible to reverse destructive environmental and cultural trends that were putting not only the environment but humanity at risk.
At roughly the same time, Orr joined the board of the Center for Ecoliteracy, an organization in Berkeley, California started by Fritjof Capra. Orr’s perspectives played a significant role in shaping the books and activities of this Center, among them the encouragement of school gardens.
In 1993, I published an article in the Whole Earth Review entitled “Shaping Bioregional Schools” that similarly emphasized the importance of situating learning in students’ home places. Summarizing the central conclusions of my Education and the Environment: Learning to Live with Limits (1992), I argued that schools capable of helping children acquire the skills and dispositions needed to create a more sustainable society must help lead them to:
(1) understand the primacy of the communities in which individuals are embedded,
(2) gain the skills and willingness needed to become effective local decision makers,
(3) grasp humanity’s fundamental dependence on the health of natural systems,
(4) move beyond a value system predicated on material comfort to one based on the importance of relationships.
In the late 1990s, the Orion Society in Vermont began publishing what became a three-volume series aimed at acquainting its readership and others about place-based educational approaches. John Elder, a Middlebury College English professor edited a volume entitled Stories in the Land: A Place-Based Environmental Anthology in 1998.
The following year, Clare Walker Leslie, John Tallmadge, and Tom Wessels published Into the Field: A Guide to Locally Focused Teaching, and then in 2004, Antioch New England University professor of education David Sobel published Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and CommunitiesAt roughly the same time, Sobel also started a project based at Antioch University New England called Co-SEED (Community-based School Environmental Education) that worked with schools in Northeastern states to begin breaking down the walls between schools and communities with the aim of enhancing students’ affiliation with the natural world and involvement in local civic and environmental issues. Since its founding, Co-SEED has worked with 13 schools including schools serving urban students in Boston and Malden, Massachusetts.

Rural Education

Running parallel to these environmentally focused placed-based educational efforts, teachers and administrators in rural schools throughout the United States were implementing curriculum and instructional approaches tied into local culture. Beginning with the Foxfire project in Rabun Gap, Georgia in the late 1960s, teachers for a number of decades invited their students to engage in cultural journalism, investigating traditional practices and history and then publishing their findings in regional journals or sometimes books.
Under the leadership of Foxfire’s Hilton Smith, students also investigated significant local issues, like decisions regarding the placement of a nuclear waste facility, venturing out from cultural journalism to direct political involvement. And at the University of Alabama in Montgomery, a campus minister named Jack Shelton started a statewide organization called Program for Academic Excellence in Rural Schools (PACERS) that gave students throughout rural Alabama the opportunity to build greenhouses and low-cost housing, start gardens and aquaculture labs, publish community newspapers and begin their own businesses. Shelton’s 2005 volume, Consequential Education: A Public Approach to Better Schools, describes many of these projects.
After the Annenberg Foundation made $500 million available to urban schools to improve the quality of American secondary education, Shelton was among a small group of rural activists and spokespeople who lobbied the Foundation to include rural schools in their vision. The Foundation agreed and made another $50 million available through a program called the Annenberg Rural Challenge.
During its five-year existence in the late 1990s, schools in 13 sites from Alaska to South Texas participated in a process aimed at making schools and communities better together. David Orr served on this board, as well. So did Paul Theobald, whose 1997 book, Teaching the Commons: Place, Pride and the Renewal of Community, argued that the revitalization of rural communities required not only economic investment but the willingness and ability to connect children to their own places rather than direct their attention away from the local and its possibilities, contributing to the phenomena of rural outmigration.
Similar work was happening at roughly the same time in Montana under the auspices of the Montana Heritage Project, a 10-year statewide effort that worked jointly with the Library Congress to engage students throughout the state in the collection and publishing of oral histories and archival research aimed at helping the young connect their own identities to the identities of people over time throughout their own towns and regions.  The work of the Montana Heritage Project is described in detail in Michael Umphrey’s 2007 book The Power of Community-Centered Education: Teaching as a Craft of Place.

Critical Pedagogy of Place

Although some of the most significant work of the Annenberg Rural Challenge took place in African-American, Native American and Mexican-American communities, little that had been written about place-based education up through the early 2000s explicitly addressed the issue of social or environmental justice. This changed with the publishing of David Greenwood’s (then Gruenewald) 2003 article “The Best of Both Worlds: A Critical Pedagogy of Place” in the primary journal of the American Educational Research Association.
Greenwood argued that place-based education was under-theorized and needed to more explicitly address the needs of disadvantaged populations.  He conjoined the writings of bioregionalists with critical theorists like Brazilian educator and activist Paolo Freire to develop the theory that a critical pedagogy of place needed to address two things.

  • First, educators needed to work with their students to investigate the way that both people and land could be oppressed by dominant institutions aimed primarily at privileging the few at the expense of the many; Greenwood labeled this process decolonization.  
  • Second, once identifying the factors that contribute to this oppression, it was imperative that young people be given the opportunity to restore damaged social and ecological systems, something Greenwood called reinhabitation.  Even though few schools have adopted practices that support the realization of this vision, Greenwood’s work opened up the possibility of linking the efforts of environmental and social justice educators, an effort that continues to this day.

One place where this is happening is in the state of Michigan where between 2006 through the present the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative has been involved in the systematic implementation of place- and community-based educational approaches from the Upper Peninsula to Detroit. Although primarily focused on the development of environmental stewards, educators associated with GLSI in urban areas have intentionally directed their attention to issues of environmental justice, exploring in particular ways to address energy efficiency and pollution.
For example, in Detroit, students at the Hope of Detroit Academy engaged in a year-long study of toxins in their community. Located in a part of the city with numerous abandoned factories, soil-polluted lots, and abundant trash, students and teachers found much to study. Early in the year, students participated in a community mapping project. One of the things they noticed was the number of tires that littered the neighborhood.
The project involved studying the life-cycle of tires and the toxins released into the environment as they decomposed, interviewing owners of used-tire businesses, identifying the location of dumped tires, and then collecting and delivering the tires to a program that employs homeless men to transform the tires into mud mats. Students were also able to interview the men who worked at the mud mat factory. Experiences like these give young people a much more holistic view of an urban problem they themselves had identified, as well as the experience of making a contribution to its solution.

Promising Examples of Place-Based Education in Practice

Maintaining place-based education over time has been a challenge in many schools where it at one point flourished, especially in the face of curricular constraints associated with the standards and accountability movement. Many of the schools that received funding from the Annenberg Rural Challenge, for example, no longer engage in the kinds of activities that had characterized their programs. The room devoted to a longstanding and influential program in a South Texas high school once supported by the Annenberg Rural Challenge how houses the school testing center.
The implementation of these approaches is often tied to the interests and abilities of specific school leaders and teachers. Too often, their departure from a school means that place-based education disappears or becomes less well-established and supported. At the same time, new examples of place-based education continue to emerge.
The Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative is especially notable because of its longevity and the number of students, teachers and schools that have been influenced by its efforts—over 80,000 students in ten years, 1,562 teachers, and 283 schools. Not all of these schools focused on place-based education as a pivotal instructional strategy, but some teachers within them did.
In Oregon, over a dozen schools are now implementing place-based approaches as a central feature of the education they offer their students. Many of these are public charter schools created by parents and teachers, but a number are also conventional public schools that are finding ways to both address the standards and the needs of their own communities. They arose without external funding or an overarching organization like the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative or the Rural Challenge.
In Alabama, some rural schools associated with PACERS continue to engage their students in a rich variety of community-oriented activities. Place-based education is also making itself felt outside the United States with programs in evidence in Canada, Great Britain, Norway, Australia, India, Bhutan, New Zealand, Japan, El Salvador and even China.
Also of note is the fact that some teachers are simply drawn to instructional approaches that involve getting students out of the classroom and into the community. Although they may never have heard of place-based education per se, they practice it because of their own interests, creativity and commitments.

The Future of Place-Based Education

The growing national interest in project-based learning coupled with the recognition that situating these projects in students’ home communities can deepen their meaning and impact suggests that interest in place-based education could continue to expand in coming decades.
As a means to engender among students a sense of affiliation with their home communities and regions, develop problem-solving skills and the ability to collaborate with others, cultivate a sense of responsibility for the natural environment and the people it supports, and instill a recognition of their own capacity to be positive change-makers and leaders, place-based education is proving to be an effective antidote to apathy and alienation along with sparking higher levels of student engagement.
The environmental and social challenges likely to arise in coming decades will require many people with the kinds of attributes associated with the experience of place-based education. Its continued dissemination could potentially contribute to the education of the activists and visionaries needed to create the more sustainable and just societies required by the future.
This blog is part of our “Place-Based Education” blog series. To learn more and contribute a guest post for the series, check out the PBE campaign page. Join in the conversation on social media using #PlaceBasedEd. For more on Place-Based Education, see:

Greg Smith is an emeritus professor of education at Lewis & Clark College. Follow them on Twitter: @lewisandclark

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Andrew Frishman

Seems to me that there's a fair amount of resonance with the "Big Picture Learning" Approach -

Jackie Lee Onsurez

We are in the process of having a community pond designed and want to apply Place Based Education. We could use assistance in educating local government on our project to enhance approval of our design.


Mason Pashia

Hey Jackie, feel free to reach out to [email protected] with this question. He has loads of experience on this subject. Thanks!

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